Group Visual Description/Analysis Wiki Exercise
Catherine Lusheck, Associate Professor
Art + Architecture
Honors Program in the Humanities
The Big Idea
Students collaborate and compete in small groups of 4-5 students each over 2 weeks’ time in editing and improving upon a short 275-word student-written visual description (or analysis) of a work of art using wikis. The wiki format allows students to see how their peers change and improve upon (or worsen) the texts in real time, and forces them to weigh why a fellow student might make changes to existing text (and whether or not s/he has improved it or not, and why). The competition, which usually consists of 4-6 groups in my lecture classes, has been described by students as fun and motivating, and useful in helping them to weigh what constitutes a strong visual description/analysis, and in improving their own writing. This is likely because the stakes are low (nothing is graded), everyone must make changes and participate in the wiki (and there is peer pressure to do so), students work in teams but also individually on the wiki (thus appealing to both collaborative and individual learning styles), and the “winning” team (which is awarded extra quiz points) is ultimately selected by the students themselves.
Students practice and learn from each other ways to improve writing, editing, and visual description and/or visual analysis skills. They do this by working in small groups online to improve upon a student example of visual description that evidences positive qualities, yet still evidences significant room for improvement. An auxiliary goal is to help students see that their work can improve and that they have it in their own power to make these positive changes (and that it can be an enjoyable exercise!)
This activity was designed for a first-year, lower-division ART 101: Survey of Western Art History I course, but could be used with other content in upper-division courses as well, and in any discipline with pedagogical concerns for improving writing, editing, argumentation, and/or visual or textual analysis skills.
First, all students write a visual description (or analysis) of a single work of art in class. (We used the ancient Palette of Narmer one semester, for example.) After reading all of the student descriptions, I then choose 5-6 examples that rank as fairly “average” examples (without telling the students this). I then split the class into small groups of 4-5 students each, and each group is assigned one of the sample descriptions, with the name stripped from it. These descriptions are then posted to the wiki anonymously by group number.
At this point, the competition “begins” and the students are instructed to edit and improve upon their group’s given visual description (or analysis), without consulting or using outside sources (including textbooks or websites.) Students are instructed to work individually for the collective benefit of their group. They are also instructed to use specific, concrete language to describe the object, and art historical vocabulary (when appropriate) to describe the object. If the assignment involves a visual description (vs. a visual analysis), students are instructed to avoid interpretation of the object. They are also instructed to pay attention to the quality and organization of their prose, as well as to grammar, syntax and spelling.
All students in the group are free to alter their group’s wiki description as many times as they like or see fit over a two-week period, with the goal of improving upon the original description as much as possible. All groups may also see what the other groups are doing with their own essay, but may not edit or copy others’ work. At the end of the competition, all students read the “before” and “after” descriptions for each of the groups, and then vote individually on which group’s description/analysis represents the greatest improvement.
Each group is strictly limited to a final essay of 275 words. If any group exceeds that number of words in their description by the end of the competition, their entry is disqualified. (This forces students to make choices about relative importance of material, and to work to condense their description of the object to the most essential visual and/or conceptual elements.)
All group members must participate in a significant way (I track their progress online through Blackboard/Canvas), and all edits must be finalized before the beginning of class two weeks after the wiki competition has begun. (At this point, I turn the wiki “off” to further changes.) Until then, students may make as many changes as they like to their group’s file, but are reminded to keep in mind that “more work” does not always equate with “better work”. I also remind them to work to improve the visual description, not just change it. To help them with this piece, I post a list of questions for consideration on the wiki that will help them determine whether or not they are working toward achieving their collective goal of substantially bettering the original. The class then collectively evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of all of the group submissions at the end of the two weeks. Everyone then votes (individually) for the two strongest submissions. The group with the most votes wins, and each student on the team receives 10 extra quiz points.